“No matter how abstractly formulated are a general theory of systems, a general theory of evolution and a general theory of communication, all three theoretical components are necessary for the specifically sociological theory of society. They are mutually interdependent.”Niklas Luhmann, The Differentiation of Society (1982), quoted in http://scihi.org/niklas-luhmann-social-systems/
The German sociologist and systems theorist, Niklas Luhmann (1927 – 1998), regarded social systems as systems of communication, i.e., he believed human society to be based largely on the transmission and processing of information. In this regard animals, particularly human beings, are unusual. Unlike other physical entities, except perhaps the machines we have created, information can lead to action. For example, we may reason that “there may be an accident so I will drive carefully”. In this statement, “there may be an accident” is information and “I will drive carefully” is a physical event. This does not apply to other physical entities, such as boulders, which cannot roll carefully due to information received. Evolution is undoubtedly the source of this ability, and we can see its progressive emergence as nervous systems become ever more complex. Its pertinence to people is largely a consequence of our social nature and the evolutionary advantages that this gives us.
The flow of information is what binds human beings together into society. However, the flow of goods and services also has a part to play. As might be expected from a characteristic that has evolved, there is a strong correlation with the hierarchy of needs. Satisfiers for our existence and procreation needs are largely material, i.e., air, water, food, shelter, etc. However, we do rely on information to know where and how to acquire these satisfiers. As we climb the hierarchy, material satisfiers become ever less important, and information plays an ever-increasing role. For example, although an exchange of material satisfiers has a part to play, relatedness is largely based on communication between the parties. At the top of the hierarchy, the growth of an individual is based almost entirely on knowledge or information. This is something that many religions stress.
So, what is information? We tend to regard it as something intangible, as being in some way separate and distinct from matter and energy. But this is not so. Information is not merely conveyed by matter and energy; it is integral to it in the form of order and structure. Thus, for example, information is held in the shape of letters written on a piece of paper, in the modulation of sound waves, radio, or electrical signals, in the way that neurons are connected in the brain, in patterns of magnetisation on a hard disk, and so on. Thus, information has a physical presence in the same way as all other entities in the universe.
Every physical entity, including energy, has an information content which depends on the extent to which it is ordered. For example, a crystal is highly ordered, but a pile of sand is not. Entropy is understood in physics to be disorder at every level of an entity from the molecular or atomic level upwards. It is, therefore, the reciprocal of information at all levels, i.e., of the total information in an entity and its component parts. It is not the reciprocal of information at just one particular level as used in human reasoning. The more disordered a thing, the higher its entropy and the lower its total information content. This is an important relationship because the second law of thermodynamics states that, in a closed system, entropy increases with time. Thus, in a closed system, total information content decreases with time, i.e., information naturally decays unless it is maintained. Meaning is lost through errors of transmission. Individuals and societies forget.
We recognise information through its recurrence. Those things which are random and disorganised, i.e., which have a low information content, can take many, almost infinite forms and are therefore unlikely to recur. Those things with a high information content take fewer forms and their recurrence is more likely, therefore. We have evolved to recognise recurrences because of the survival advantages bestowed upon us by the ability to learn from them and predict events. So, entities with a high information content are meaningful to us, and we give them names, whilst those with a low information content are not.
The general properties of information are as follows.
- Because information is order inherent in matter and energy, an item of information occupies a region of space-time.
- Information is recursive. Any item of information comprises lesser items of information and is a component of greater ones. However, some of the lesser or greater items are meaningful, whilst others are not.
- In the physical universe, complexity increases along different paths, from the level of sub-atomic particles and their interactions to the level of the entire universe. For example, one path may be via human society and another via astro-physics. On a particular path of increasing complexity, order, and thus information content, may exist at some levels but not at others. For example, stars recur in their trillions. A single star shares information at its level with all others, and so, it is a recognisable entity. On the other hand, a collection of stars can take many forms, none of which are likely to recur. At this level no information is shared with other collections of stars, and so, it is not a recognisable entity. It has a description but no name. At the next level up, a galaxy does frequently recur and shares information at its level with many other galaxies. So, galaxies are recognisable entities.
- A key feature of information is that it can be replicated, whilst matter and energy cannot, i.e., organisation in one place can be copied to another. The term “replication” is used because information is established in the latter, whilst also being retained in the former.
- However, the replication of information is for the highest level of complexity for the entity concerned and information at lower levels is excluded. For example, we may name an individual person or film them, and replicate that information, but we do not replicate their cellular structure or thoughts. The matter or energy onto which the name or film is replicated may comprise an entirely different sub-structure, e.g., the cellulose of paper, the neural connections of a brain, or the magnetic particles in a hard disk.
- Information can be transmitted from place to place by causality. When it is transmitted this is via a medium, e.g., a book, or via a chain of micro-causality, e.g., cables. The latter is known as a channel.
- Information at source in the physical universe is, by definition, always true. However, replicated information can be true or false.
- Information is translatable, i.e., a structure in one medium can represent, rather than replicate, a different structure in another. Most notably, patterns in the physical universe are encoded as patterns in the mind and in language. Significantly, also, the things that we recognise and are meaningful to us are given a name.
- Information decays with time and transmission unless it is maintained. This is the same as the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. Information is order or low entropy, lack of information is disorder or high entropy. In a closed system, from which no matter or energy enters or leaves, entropy increases with time. But in an open system it can be held steady or even decreased.
- According to the American mathematician, Claude Shannon, and the physicist, Warren Weaver, decay in transmission is caused by noise in the channel. Noise is anything which can alter information during its transmission. However, this theory neglects other ways in which human communication can fail. The problem of noise interfering with communication can be minimised by redundancy either in the information transmitted or in the channels through which it is transmitted.
- Information often contains redundancies, i.e., the same component of information repeated laterally, and recursion, i.e., the same component of information repeated vertically. It also contains irrelevances, i.e., meaningless components which have no influence on the information content of the entity. Thus, the information held by an entity can be condensed without any loss of meaning.
- The General System Theory principle of darkness states that no system can be known completely by anything less complex. This assumes that the information content of a system must be replicated in the one that “knows” it, and thus, that the latter must be sufficiently complex to hold it. However, information can often be condensed without loss of meaning. Thus, a modified principle of darkness would state that no system can be known completely by anything insufficiently complex to hold its information in a condensed form. Failing that, the model must necessarily be simplified and will, therefore, contain errors. This implies that the components of a system only react to the inputs they receive and cannot “know” the behaviour of the system as a whole.
Human needs, emotions, culture, values, norms, and beliefs are all information. They are held in the minds of individual people in the way that the brain is structured. They are also held by a larger organisation in an aggregate of the minds of its members, plus any other places in which information is stored, such as computers, paper files, etc. The relative priority of our needs, the levels of our emotions and of our satisfaction are variable characteristics held in the same way. Thus, much of social systems theory is concerned with the flow of information.